In praise of Stuart Hall And The Need For An Anti-racialist Movement

Stuart Hall’s contribution to critical race theory undoubtedly changed the way we conceptualise and understand race and racism today in a so called post-colonial world.


Hall argued that race is nothing but a floating signifier (his lecture can be found on YouTube[1]). It therefore illuminated our understanding of race being nothing but a social construction. Ashley Montagu[2], another scholar in race theory had already argued, prior to Hall’s contribution to race and cultural theories, that race wasn’t a ‘real thing’. Nevertheless, Hall’s notion of race being a ‘floating signifier’ developed a more rigorous explanation into how racism played out. Hall developed a historical account of how racial discourses (as opposed to the mere notion of distinct racial groups), moulded the way racism shaped the lives of racists and their victims, and therefore helps us explain and importantly recognise post-modern forms of racism and racialisation.


Hall explains how discursive racism is more powerful than the random act(s) of racial attacks and experienced by people of colour in the Western world, and is therefore better at explaining why people of colour hardly gain recognition for their work. It is the construction of Black criminality[3]. He argued that during the 1970’s mugging became a hot topic of political discourse by politicians, which meant that black men in particular were targeted by the police. Such reality led to large-scale disillusionment with the police, which would eventually lead to riots in the 1980s. This holds much relevance today as stop and searches in London still target Black men disproportionately (and this has also come to include British South Asian or Muslim men too).


Discursive racism is much more powerful than overt racial discrimination...


Simply because it becomes normative, it becomes subconscious, it becomes indirect and manifest, which results in the racist defending themselves using the tired overused phrase ‘everything is not about race’. Everything is unequivocally about race when it draws from old racist discourses. The comment by Rod Liddle in the spectator in 2010, that men of Afro-Caribbean origin commit all street crime and sexual assault in London [4], reflects these old discourses about the dangerous black man. And post-modern racism doesn’t have to get as ugly as Liddle’s remark; how many times have people used or heard the term ‘stop acting black’? It is steeped in racism, yet no-one recognises it.


‘Acting black’ equates “Blackness” with criminality, drug abuse, violence, antisocial behaviour, etc. Yet if we were to reverse the proposition and ask what is ‘acting White’, and problematise white masculinities in the same way, the themes that underpin ‘acting black’ become more apparent. There is still racist agency in these discourses, Black men on our screens play the drug dealer/pimp (adulthood), rebel fighter, or the slave (historical-based White saviour films), because this is what the white audience wants to see. And people of colour are still largely marginalised from mainstream TV and film.


What Hall therefore has taught us is that, race itself is an empty vessel that holds no meaning in a society on its own because it is not a real thing, moreover since racial discrimination is outlawed by legal means, it has become harder to be openly racist. However since race politics according to Hall, has always been realised in discourse, racism has become entrenched with the creation of new ‘enemies’ and new means of alienation. We are therefore no longer living in a world where race is becoming irrelevant, this is because we are not living in a racist world (or country at least), but we are living in increasingly a more entrench racialised world, and the new ‘race’ plays out. A racialist society therefore still reflects the dichotomy of power and subjugation, and is no different to racism.


Racialisation attributes certain fixed characteristics through discourses to certain groups of people, the creation of a Black masculinity which associates black men with criminality, hyper sexuality, and violence determines people of colour’s whole sense of being. Michelle Alexander[5] argues that black men receive higher sentences compared to white men for the same offence. Kanye West (bad example? Will be explained), in one of his less (in)famous interviews[6] of recent times, talks about his struggles in gaining entry into the fashion industry and especially his lack of success in collaborating with Luis Vuitton. However, he blames classism within the fashion industry for his lack of success, and avoids using race, despite it reeking in obviousness.  


To be blunt, why would Luis Vuitton, a luxury brand whose main audience is the global White bourgeoisie  elite, want to be associated with a Black rapper ‘from da hood’? Had West been a white man, they would have called him artistic (Elton John?), but it is because of these racialist constructions of black masculinity that filter through.  Of course, West has some privilege - mainly, his wealth and this gives him a platform from which to complain but is a luxury not afforded to most working class black men, and neither does he have the agency to challenge that either.


I will end with important thoughts that come from Hall’s thinking. What does it mean for the anti-racist movement of the 21st century, what happens to anti-racist movement now, how do we tackle racialization? The monopoly over discourse production is still in the hands of the white man, the media, (which play a big part in shaping discourses and debates) are still dominated by middle class white men. What it means for the ant-racist movement is about rejecting the notion of race itself; it is about challenging the very nature of racial categories. We are here to smash the very racial categories that have been created by white men and have been internalised. We are here to smash the very racial categories that subsequently divide the anti-racist movement on arbitrary phonotypical differences. Instead, the movement should focus on anti-racialism and anti-racialisation, we here to break the process of associating everything bad with ‘colouredness’, and all goodness with whiteness. 


We can only free ourselves from the chains that oppress, once we free ourselves from the labels on the chains that identify us.


Written by: Amna Germanotta Riaz. 


[2] Montagu, A., 1964. The concept of race. New York: Free Press of Glencoe

[3] Hall, S., 1978. Crime Law and the State. In: S. Hall, ed. Policing the crisis : mugging, the state, and law and order. London: Macmillan, pp. 181-217.

[4] Burnett, J., 2013. Britain: racial violence and the politics of hate. Race Class, 54(5), pp. 5-21. 

[5] Alexander, M., 2011. New Jim Crow, The Symposium: Mass Incarceration: Causes, Consequences, and Exit Strategies. Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law, 9(1), pp. 7-26.